They Even Cheered Technique: The International Soccer League, Part One

$2 million for a Summer of Soccer in 1960: several decades before Soccer United Marketing and others figured out the value of bringing Europe’s best teams to play in North America during their summer breaks, New Yorker Bill Cox had already given it quite a shot with the International Soccer League.

The 102nd Mayor of New York City, Robert F. Wagner, was at the announcement at City Hall on October 28th 1959 that a new professional soccer league would begin play exclusively in his city the next summer, with all the games to take place at Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. $75,000 would be spent to upgrade the floodlights at the 25,000 capacity venue. Tickets would be priced at $2 for general admission and $3 for reserved seating, while 1,200 box seats would also be installed. One American team would play alongside star teams from Britain, continental Europe, and possibly South America. All expenses would be paid for the visiting teams, with cash prizes for the winners. The total cost of the venture was estimated at around $2 million in today’s money.

At the same time, in London, Cox – to be president of the league’s only American team, a New York entry – made the same announcement. The Times of London reported that “The Football League, the Scottish League, and the Northern Ireland and Eire leagues have approved the proposals subject to the agreement of their clubs.”

The competition was planned to take place between May 25th with its first section (comprising six teams), ending June 26th, with the second section (also comprising six teams) beginning June 29th and ending August 3rd. The winners of each section would then play each other for the championship title.

Mayor Wagner was enthusiastic: “Many of our citizens in the city are foreign born. They all are fond of soccer and they have instilled that fondness in their children. This new league will give us a chance to see the greatest players in the game competing against a New York team. The city will cooperate in every possible way to help this league succeed.”

Cox, the league’s impresario who had made his money in the lumber business, had a mixed track record as a sports promoter. His involvement in American football in the 1940s with football teams the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers had not been a success, and nor had his involvement with the Philadelphia Phillies in Major League Baseball: though the team improved under his tenure in 1943 and attendance rose, Cox was forced to depart when it was found he had bet on his own team (“sentimentally”, he claimed).

Cox announced that the ISL would begin play with section one featuring Scotland’s Kilmarnock, England’s Burnley, France’s Nice, West Germany’s Bayern Munich and Northern Ireland’s Glenavon.

While those names outside of Bayern Munich may not sound all that glamorous, that was not the case. Burnley, in fact, were the reigning champions of England. The timing of Burnley’s triumph, mere weeks before their opening game in the ISL, showed either great serendipity or remarkable foresight on the part of Cox. As Brian Glanville wrote, “Burnley, whose colors are claret and blue, is thus a most happy and long-sighted selection for the tournament in New York.”

Burnley featured the flair of Irishman Jimmy McIlroy, and the stoutness of Jimmy Adamson.

Glenavon, meanwhile, were the champions of Northern Ireland. Nice had finished ninth in Ligue 1 in 1960, but had been champions in 1959 when they’d been recruited for the league. Kilmarnock had just finished as runners-up in the Scottish Cup.

Each brought strong teams. Nice, for example, regularly fielded almost the entire XI who had recently taken on Real Madrid at the quarter-final stage of the European Cup, including Georges Lamia, Alphonse Martínez, César Gonzales, François Milazzo, Jacques Foix, Héctor de Bourgoing, Omar Keita Barrou and Victor Nurenberg.

Glenavon, Bayern Munich, Kilmarnock and Nice arrived in New York by chartered plane, while Burnley took a leisurely steam ship journey across the Atlantic.

New York’s entry was coached by Al Stubbins, a former Newcastle United and Liverpool forward. Stubbins is best known for being the only footballer to feature on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The forty year-old hoped he could help show the beauty of soccer to a new American audience.

“The new fan should observe both the individual play and the team play,” Stubbins told the media ahead of the ISL’s inaugural game. “When a player has the ball to himself, he can employ great dexterity with his feet, deception, and tricky ball-maneuvering. No player except the goalie may touch the ball with his hands. While the individual is showing his own style, he is at the same time advancing the fortunes of his team. In team play, the thing to watch for is the pass patterns. These are short and executed with a minimum of delay.”

Al Stubbins, New York Americans' Coach

Al Stubbins, New York Americans' Coach

The media supported the ISL in at times breathless style. A month before kick-off, Allison Danzig wrote that “Soccer is making a comeback in the colleges and being taken up by thousands of high schools. The International Soccer League matches Cox is bringing to New York may be the greatest shot in the arm the game has known in this country.”

The hype helped Cox earn the fledgling league a television contract, with ten games to be televised on WPIX in New York, nine of them live in a prime Saturday night spot. That left WPIX the challenge of finding an announcer who could both explain the game while relating to an American audience. The Vice-President of WPIX’s Operations Department Levitt Pope admitted that “The best soccer experts are British. But I suspect British announcers are too reserved for our purposes. We need someone to talk it up and give the game color. On the other hand, I don’t know if it would work out in trying to take an American announcer and make a soccer expert out of him. What we are looking for is a British Mel Allen, if you can imagine such a thing.” (Mel Allen was the well-known voice of the New York Yankees)

The teams playing in section one were introduced to the media on May 24th 1960 by Mayor Wagner, and a lady described by the New York Times as “Miss Soccer 1960″ – Dolores Armada, Brooklyn-born of Spanish descent, who played on the women’s team for Club Espana and was a secretary of the Dutch Airline that had flown the teams in.

Not everything had gone to plan for the ISL. The games did not take place as promised at Downing Stadium. Instead, the schedule was split between games at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan and Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey. Each of the six teams would play each other once in a round-robin format, with two points awarded for a win and one for a tie.

10,444 fans attended the inaugural game at the Polo Grounds on May 25th 1960, as Kilmarnock – trailing 1-0 at half-time – defeated Bayern Munich 3-1, a deserved win by all accounts. The ISL had been anticipating a crowd of over 15,000, leading to some disappointment, though far from despair. Those that did attend were engaged in the game; Michael Strauss reported that “They cheered, they applauded and they rooted. . .The fans were soccer-wise ones. They knew the game. They booed decisions they considered unjust in the same way that a baseball crowd reacts on close calls made at home plate. They cheered plays at midfield as well as near the nets. They even cheered technique.”

Fancy dribbles by Miloš Milutinović had the crowd shouting “Just like Bob Cousy” at him, referencing the famous Boston Celtics point guard of the time renowned for his ball-handling skills and movement.

The “American” team began play the next day: without a single native American on the team. At the try-outs in late April, Cox had justified the domination of the team by overseas player by saying “It wouldn’t be out of place if we had all foreigners on our squad. After all, the New York Rangers’ hockey team doesn’t have an American among its regulars.”

Ten of those selected were, though, at least New York based, such as John Kriesche, the manager of a Brooklyn butcher shop and a local player for Blau-Weiss Gottschee (a club who still play today).

Referees, meanwhile, were also imported, mostly from Britain.

The New York Americans started out – unsurprisingly – poorly at the first game held at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, losing 5-1 to Glenavon. Discouragingly, only around 3,000 fans showed up, quiet in the face of the poor performance of the home team.

The ISL, though, had certainly attracted attention. The Yankees’ Yogi Berra was reported to hold a considerable interest in the league. “Tell you what we’ll do some night, Howie.” Yogi told his teammates at the end of May. “We’ll go to the Polo Grounds and watch the international soccer. That’s a great game, soccer.” Berra had grown up playing the same in St. Louis, Soccer City USA.

Attendance hovered at levels that meant the ISL would struggle to break even. 5,916 saw Kilmarnock defeat Glenavon 2-0 in both teams’ second games, at Roosevelt Stadium on May 29th.

Encouragingly, June began with a record crowd of 13,013 watching the ISL’s remaining unbeaten teams Kilmarnock and Burnley go head-to-head at the Polo Grounds, the Scots triumphing 3-0 in a foul-ridden game. Michael Strauss reported that “members of both teams shook hands after the game. This sudden cordiality caused considerable merriment in the crowd. For the players had hammered at each other as if they were mortal enemies.”

The disparity in attendance between Manhattan and New Jersey – games at the former outdrawing games at the latter by more than 2 to 1 – began talk that the second series may play only at the Polo Grounds.

Meanwhile, soccer debuted on WPIX Channel 11 on Saturday, June 4th, kicking off at 8.30pm and going head-to-head against professional American football, with the Baltimore Colts playing the Green Bay Packers on Channel 9. WPIX had been unable to find their “British Mel Allen.” Pope had interviewed several Brits, but had been unable to find his man, concluding that “we felt that a combination of presenting a sport relatively unknown to so many Americans and an accent that Americans often find amusing would be too much of a handicap.”

Instead, Canadian Monty Hall – a former soccer player – and veteran sports announcer American Win Elliott presented the show. Cox found a sponsor for the show: F&M Schaefer Brewing Company, brewer of the best-selling beer of its age.

A double-header at the Polo Grounds on June 4th saw considerable improvement from the New York Americans, who held Burnley to a 3-3 tie, with the tying goal coming from a free-kick by the Americans’ Ukrainian star Gene Vinyei in the 83rd minute. Burnley played the final 22 minutes with only ten men, after a leg injury forced out Brian Pilkington, their right-back (substitutions were only allowed for injuries to the goalkeeper).

Matters were not helped by both teams wearing white jerseys: they were distinguished by red shorts in the Americans’ case, and black shorts for the English.

Perhaps not ideally for an American television audience, the televised second game also ended up without a winner, as Bayern Munich and Nice drew 2-2. A solid crowd of 10,414 attended.

The first television reviews proved positive. Jack Gould wrote that “Soccer, the most popular international sport, may turn out to be the newest hit on American television. At least the professional brand of game played Saturday night by Nice of France and Bayern Munich of Germany made for exceptionally good viewing over WPIX.”

Gould continued, “The incredibly deft footwork of the players in the International Soccer League, who will appear on Saturday nights for the next nine weeks over Channel 11, is something to be seen by anyone, whether a sports fan or not. The control of the ball, deception of opposing players and artistry of movement border on the fabulous.”

Unlike many later American commentators, Gould concluded that “The sport, known as football in most parts of the world, appears to be made for TV.”

And similarly, unlike many others who would unfavourably compare the athleticism of soccer to American sports, Gould concluded that “For stamina, the soccer players make most athletes look like weaklings.”

Gould observed that the producers had found ways to impose Schaefer’s beer advertisements into the program without interrupting play too much, with “modest commercials over the action on the field”, determining that “Thoughtfulness is always sound advertising.”

A few days later, play resumed with Nice somehow holding Kilmarnock to a tie: the Scots bombarded Nice’s goal, 27 saves made, but could only score once, and the French found an equaliser. The league was seemingly growing in popularity perhaps thanks to the television coverage, a new record for a single-game set with 12,861 attending. Ill-feeling broke out after the Scots felled two Frenchmen, prompting Nice coach Jean Luciano to rush onto the field, who then apparently spat on the referee, Tom Callaghan, as well as two Kilmarnock players. Luciano was ordered off, but refused to leave the bench, later declaring “I never spat and I will never spit.”

Kilmarnock’s failure to win left the section one title still up for grabs for the next two games at the Polo Grounds two days later. The double-header, with Nice playing the Americans and Burnley facing Glenavon, attracted 11,864 fans.

The Americans secured their second tie in a 1-1 game, though injuries had left Nice playing with only nine men by the end of the game. The Americans did feature a native-born American, with Kevin Hoy in goal.

The second half descended into chaos. Americans’ defender Les Locke was twice headbutted to the ground, with the game stopped three times when the teams began fighting. Vinyei had given the Americans the lead, but Georges Lamia, Nice’s goalkeeper, felled Locke shortly after when he felt he’d been roughly challenged.

The second game went off without incident, Burnley beating Glenavon 6-2.

Nice then defeated Glenavon 3-2 a few days later, another poor crowd attending the game at Roosevelt stadium, with only 3,391 present.

After four games played, then, Kilmarnock led the way with seven points, Burnley and Nice just behind with five points each, New York on four points, Bayern Munich on three points and Glenavon on only two points. One round of games remained to determine the champions of section one. Kilmarnock’s chance to clinch the title would be shown on tape delay on WPIX on Saturday, June 25th.

Burnley put the pressure on Kilmarnock by winning the first game of the double-header at the Polo Grounds, 11,704 in attendance. They defeated Nice 4-0. Kilmarnock, though, continued their fine, speedy play with a 3-1 win over the Americans to capture the section one title. New York were hampered by the departure in the first half of their captain Alf Sherwood, who was later awarded the MVP for section one, concussed and taken to hospital. Sherwood was a Welsh international imported for the tournament from Newport County, and known as the “King of the Sliding Tackle.”

Kilmarnock claimed a prize of $1,000 and advanced to the “America Cup” final, while Burnley received $500 as runners-up.

Days later, the New York Times published a letter from a reader proposing some changes to the way the game was played:

“I am sure the game will appeal to the American public only if some changes are made in the playing rules. For instance: (1) Players should be allowed to charged the goaltender the instant he leaves the goal post. (2) An injured player leaving the game should be replaced. (3) Players should be allowed to charge each other in a legal way. (4) Penalties should be called for two, five or ten minutes, according to the seriousness of the infraction.”

Regardless, Kilmarnock would have to await the results of the second section to know who’d they play on August 5th at the Polo Grounds for the inaugural International Soccer League championship. Cox’s expensive experiment was off to a modest but successful start, and much would hinge on the appeal of the second section and the championship game.

Continue to Part Two of this series, as we look at how the ISL’s debut season shaked out.

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